Saturday, April 20, 2013

Irene Alice Prentice Allemano: Good-bye, and Hello

Mrs. Allemano died, and was bid farewell by friends and family this week in a memorial service. She touched the lives of each of The MadriGals over the course of several decades of her extraordinary life, and I find I cannot put this week away without catching some few of the bits of magic here, for remembrance.

Death separates us in the most profound and absolute way. The person who has died may be continuing life of another kind, in another plane, may be experiencing an existence so unlike what we know as to defy description. Indeed, many of us are so confident in an afterlife of some kind that it is an article of faith, holy to us and unquestionable. And yet, truly, the person whose death we are mourning is gone from us in this life, not to return. What we truly mourn is cloth woven of many threads, but  some of those are undeniably selfish, because we dread the lack of the presence of the person who has died. Certainly Irene believed in continued existence, a belief Reverend Elizabeth Clare likened to the caterpillar whose cocoon or chrysalis seems to be the end, and whose continued existence we celebrate as the birth of a butterfly. This was a particularly apt illustration, as Irene was graceful, elegant, and stunningly beautiful, and seemed to move from flower to fascinating flower, somehow making each one seem more beautiful by her very presence, throughout the course of her life. Still, we are separated forever, and this grieves us sorely.

But when we choose to join each other in celebration of a life, two things happen that seem positively magical when viewed in hindsight: our picture of the person who has died becomes more textured, more whole, in our minds; and we are brought, across miles and years and the strongest of feelings, together.
Diverse images of the person, each seen from one individual perspective, begin to overlay one another. As Irene's son Eric spoke of his parents, a picture of their marriage emerged. He and his brothers, he said, never heard a cross word pass between their parents, both of them only children accustomed to quiet and perhaps unprepared for the chaos that usually attends the growing of siblings. One evening, he recalled, he and his brother Ralph heard, alarmed, their parents shouting at one another. Alarmed, the boys ran into their parents' room, crying, "Stop it! Stop yelling at each other!" Their parents, their mission accomplished, replied, "See? This is what it's like for us when the two of you shout," and the lesson was learned. Eric shared much more about his mother, talking of her exploration of the spiritual, her resumption of the pursuit of art after her children were nearly grown, of her life traveling with his father, living in many Latin American countries, absorbing and reflecting back the cultures of each. He mentioned her volunteer work, including time spent in maternity wards helping deliver babies, welcoming each to this new world. Another piece fell into place for me, another friendship illuminated. When Irene's contributions to the cultural life of St. Augustine (she was a founder, with Frieda Bringmann and others, of E.M.M.A, a group responsible for bringing classical and other performers to our small city and enriching us enormously), I saw her as the practical philanthropist she was: donations Irene made weren't just monetary. They were made precious by her own investment of time and talent, and lasting by her determination and commitment. When her granddaughters spoke, I saw the bright shimmer of Irene all around them. Quite strongly individual, they are nearly identical in their intelligence, their abilit to articulate, their powerful presence and self-awareness and the promise of their future. When their own mother spoke, I could see Irene as a mother and mother-in-law, making welcome to her family this lovely Englishwoman his son had married. In the early days, she said, her mother-in-law had three signatures to each note or letter: one for Ralph and one for the children, and finally, for her, "Irene". Over time, the signature become one for the whole family, "Mama" as it is pronounced in Spanish-speaking families, with the accent on the second syllable. There was Irene to life, making a beautiful whole of precious but separate parts. Some things were not told aloud; had we all told our stories we'd have stayed the night and into the day. Later, Judy emailed me that she had known Irene in the mid-70s, when Irene's husband and Mrs. Bringmann's were both patients of the doctor for whom Judy worked. They were both kind and generous enough to a young nurse that she recalled them both clearly and with fondness. The beloved Booksmiths, Bob and Diana, sat just in front of us, and their stories didn't have to be told to me, for I knew some of them myself: Irene was an eclectic and inveterate reader and lover of literature. Her son Ralph's family came to St. Augustine every summer, and the Booksmith may have been a highlight for them, but it was no less a bright spot for us as she gracefully ushered the British branch of her family among us and we were charmed by the delightful little girls who have clearly grown into women their grandmother helped shape into spirits of intelligence and grace.
And there were so many other voices, quiet in that room, but audible in my ears. Friends present, and friends not able to join us: you can see some of them in this picture, but there are so many, each with a story of Irene or a hundred stories of her. Her son Ralph gave us a memorable glimpse of her impish humor, so vividly present in him, even to the creases of laughter around his eyes. And so, in a brief hour or so, Irene emerged, far more detailed and finely drawn than I've told in these few words for I have left out much. But she was so visible, so, as Reverend Elizabeth said, so positively present with us in that room. And she had brought us all together. The MadriGals sang Simple Gifts, a Shaker hymn dear to me for the memory of JoAnn Kirby Nance giving it beautiful voice at my own wedding. We sang, "...if love is lord of Heaven and Earth, how can I keep from singing?", a hymn beloved of Judy and me, and a true expression of the occasion. As Irene was a devoted and loving gardener, we sang "For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies..." And less to honor Irene than to give voice to those she loved, we finished with Amazing Grace. Lis played guitar until we came round to finish, repeating the familiar first verse sotto voce, when she stopped playing and we finihsed a capella. The voices of Irene's family and friends called back to me, so that tears came into my eyes and voice. It was simply beautiful, like Irene herself. Good-bye, dear Mrs. Allemano, and hello, dear Irene. You will be with us always.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Peace Be upon You, Irene Allemano

This is likely to be repetitive, even dull, for those of you who stop by here for a read now and then, so I apologize in advance. Some things, especially when they rest upon the floor joists of our lives, are worth saying over and over again. With a bit of writers' luck, the less dull ones will make their way here.

Often and often - and indeed, quite recently - have I written of the power and grace of girls and women in my life. It is no surprise, as Miss Katie says. The need was in me, a deep chasm opened by my mother's death when I was eleven. The need was common, of course; many of us search for guidance, insight, approval, affirmation. Some of us find these at the hands and hearts of women we love. I might be no different than anyone else. Or I might been brushed by some psychic magnet, the echo of which continues to draw me into the orbit of astonishing women and girls who gift me with glimpses of their unique magic and then go or stay. Who knows the right of it?

No matter what, The Booksmith was surely a vector: a point of intersection science cannot explain, where the power of women to change our little lives and our tiny world was visible and undeniable. Through this brass-clad door came Mrs. Detmold, whose ordering of the Oxford English Dictionary, Unabridged, surely changed St. Augustine and left no Booksmith denizen unmoved. Here, too, dwelt Diana (ah! what I owe to Diana for my present self!) and Su, Maggie and Katie: diverse readers untethered by syllabi, whose minds left no word, no phrase, unturned or unconsidered. Here was Eileen Ronan, whose gift and dedication of Southern Sideboards changed my cooking - and writing - life permanently. Here: Marilyn Bailey. Books and reading bled over into personal lives, which you can't have missed if you've looked at a single dish photographed for this blog on a Desert Rose Franciscanware plate. Writers crossed into this dimension: those who were gone, like Zora Neale Hurston, those whose contemporary connections kept them alive and present to us, like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and the irrepressibly live Tasha Tudor, and those whose vibrant voices and insistent heartbeats could simply not be ignored, like Connie May Fowler.

They are too many to describe; they are legion. Some of them have found themselves painted into the pages of this blog. And of course there's a natural tendency to seek the wisdom of those walking life's path just a few steps ahead; one imagines this to be not much different for men. For women, it seems the simplest path to insight to ask someone whose baby is a year old what you, pregnant, might expect during childbirth. We pass through windows within a few years of which our sisters are pairing off, becoming couples, marrying, considering or having babies, finding methods and managing tradeoffs of raising children while maintaining work, creativity, education. These years sometimes create a tendency to telescope down, to focus on those of our sisters whose progress on the path mirrors our own.

But there are our younger sisters, awaiting the wisdom we're acquiring. And there, ahead of us, are our older sisters, our mothers and grandmothers, awaiting the moments when we will ask for the wisdom they themselves have amassed like so much treasure. (Is that *your* mother? Is she standing on the path so she can annoy you with opinions about the age at which you ought to have a baby (if YOU EVER ARE going to) or the relative merits of nursing, or....dammit, is that your mother? Look down, look down; don't make eye contact....) Children aside, your own mother's place along your path notwithstanding, our older sisters stand ahead of us, waiting with patience and ineffeable kindness to make small offerings from their hearts to ease our ways.

Mrs. Allemano was enough older than I was. In my ignorance, this prevented me from immediately recognizing her as one of my older sisters, as one of the many sisters or mothers whose generosity would help light my way. She seemed  far too elegant and her view far too loftily focused to take any notice of me, or even to remember my name.

Irene Allemano was tall and gracefully built, along lines that might have suited her for haute couture modeling, perhaps 30 years ago, perhaps the day before yesterday.

She walked into The Booksmith one day with her head held as high as though she were accustomed to carry on it every day a library from Plato to Pliny the Elder to Petrarch and beyond. Her dress was a brightly colored, beautifully draped thing that seemed at once distinctly modern and vaguely African. I would not have been shocked to find it required the attention necessary to properly drape a Roman senator's toga. At her wrists and around her neck, she wore a necklace of unambigous avante garde design, in chunky semiprecious stones exactly matched to her beautiful dress. She was introduced to me as "Mrs. Allemano". I believe we discussed the Times bestseller list and some other reviews of things we wanted to be sure not to miss, but I do not remember one single word of that conversation. I only remember the certainty that I'd been in the presence of some sort of royalty. Despite her easy conversation and complete lack of self-consciousness, her understated erudition and the pleasure she clearly took in books and the realm of the mind, she was someone apart. It would be years before I would understand her as an older sister, an emotional signpost pointing me toward my future. Today, it's hard to imagine that Mrs. Allemano would not have invested her considerable powers of philosophical consideration and influence on her younger sisters. I just didn't know it at the time. Ah, the wisdom from which we are screened by youth.

Years went by, with their inevitable changes.Holiday voices were reconfigured into the MadriGalz and on one unforgettable occasion, The Cafe Alzacar and the MadriGalz were graced by Mrs. Allemano, her two breathtaking sons, their wives, and best of all, the children of that fascinating family. We sang to them, we were awed by them, they were gracious to us, and from that day to this, carols echo faintly in my mind's ear when I think of Mrs. Allemano. I would not see her again in this life, and yet for so many reasons I'm grateful to say that I hope to hear her voice, guiding me through the voices of those we both loved, and in the still small voice I sometimes forget to heed.

Peace be unto you, Mrs. Allemano. I believe your children and your children's children will rise up and call you blessed. And upon reflection: So say we all.

Photo (c) 2012 Christina diEno

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Wedding Day Blessings: Jessie & Vergil

When we saw them together, we all knew. It wasn't that one or the other of them brightened when the other entered a room, the excitement typical of young couples. It was as though some immutable law of physics was invoked when each passed within a certain degree of the other's orbital space, and sub-atomic particles collided or whatever it is that they do so that light was produced. Light did not encircle Jessie and Vergil so that they were set apart from the rest of us in a bubble of their own. Rather, light suffused any space in which we were all present with them, and lit us all as if from within. Standing within that circle, the light seemed expansive enough to contain the world and we shared a gentle feeling of blessing, most of us humbled and grateful.

Knotted in a warm little kitchen circle together, Ms. Moon told us about Jessie calling and saying, I've Met Someone. We were gathered, our extended circle of family, best and oldest friends, our most trusted and treasured, as we've gathered for many years. We catch up with each other, we cook for each other, we make music, we circle around a companionable fire. The children of those we love toddle, then walk, then wander through. Some of them begin to play instruments; some raise their voices in harmonies.

When we saw Jessie and Vergil together, I think we may all have been reminded of saying those words ourselves, yesterday or last year or many long years gone by: I've. Met. Someone. Maybe there were some quiet moments that afternoon while we lost ourselves in recollection. But mostly, I think, we considered the power of love, reaching and touching us all in the simple, non-negotiable way that sunsets touch skylines. We went back to chopping collards and washing whatever had come in from the garden to be made into salad for dinner. We hugged. We caught hands while we washed dishes. We frosted mint bars and grated carrots. We smiled at each other, and we smiled little inside smiles.

It may seem trite. It may read like a sentimental story; it may raise a cynical eyebrow. But look at them together, daughter and mother, caught in a prosaic working moment in the very kitchen that tonight produces the food for Jessie's wedding. The first-person unvarnished picture is most true in Ms. Moon's voice, which she shares in flashes of captured moments leading up to the wedding. Ms. Moon is known in blogging circles for her plain-spoken unwillingness to tolerate bullshit and her deep, profound capacity for love. Between them, she and Mr. Moon and their beautiful children, their extended circle of family and the friends who inhabit some of the spaces even closer than family have set Jessie's roots deeply in rich soil of love and trust, fidelity and laughter, music and faith, and all those other ineluctable precious things where commitment can thrive as long as life.

You are richly blessed, darling children. You are perhaps more richly endowed than most people even now. Right now. Before you are ever married, before you truly cleave to one another and make yourselves into a new, green, life-filled offshoot of your own families, you are blessed; I know you both know this. Here's what may be most important to remember: not everyone IS blessed in this way. Embrace each other, and embrace those whose paths cross yours. Those whose lives have not been kissed and gilded by love, shown its many faces; those whose spirits may be poorer for this? Your love may be a light you never even know you've shared. Your love may flicker unexpected illumination into darknesses you do not imagine. Thanks to your parents, your godparents, your sisters and brothers and so many others, your love will brighten lives, and change them as a result. May this be the gift of your love, dear ones: light into dark places wherever your feet take you, a sharing of the blessings that have been poured out upon you, a benediction for as long as life. May your common gift for enriching others continue to grow and be shared, from your own hearts to ours, and to those as yet unknown.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Rescued: me. Also? Lemon Cake.

Well. My stars. Where did the time go? Ah, well, the hair may change but the heart remains constant. And some of my themes are the same. A fundamental?
Rescue. I've spoken before about one of the underlying foundations of my own life, which is the role girls and women have played and continue to play in rescue, resurrection, joy and far more than those words can convey.

So then: Rescue for me. Many people are fortunate to have friends who help them through crisis and leaven their day-to-day lives. Something else has happened to me. I was rescued matter-of-factly and with no apparent thought in the years after my mother died by a group of girls. As women, they rescued me again when one of them, Carrie, was lost to us through the predations of Inflammatory Breast Cancer. As a young woman, one of them, Vicki, and her family rescued me from a broken heart and great uncertainty. For Vicki, here will follow the Lemon Cake recipe. Because she asked for it. Because it's the least thing I can do for someone who truly did rescue me. And because her family rescued me twice, without the right sort of appreciation articulated by me at the time.

Beyond childhood and my life as a young woman, there were too many rescuers to list here.I must mention that I was sometimes rescued,  but more importantly today, I continue to have my life and consciousness sustained and enlivened by those who can only be described as sisters. Is this true for everyone? I'm not sure. I can only say that the benediction these sisters bring in the most prosaic and humble forms, as well as those poetic and lofty forms, constitute blessings that make life inexpressibly vibrant for me. True for you? I hope so.

So, for Vicki, here the cake recipe, or rather, the combination of a couple of recipes. At our house, this is based on the embarassing abundance of Meyer lemons our tree bears every year, but if you live in a less sub-tropical climate, you can do this with regular lemons or limes, or even with oranges. It blends a standard cake recipe from our Cake Hero Susan Purdy with a recipe for lemon curd I adapted from a Southern Living recipe. So you have to make two things: the lemon curd (make it first) and then the cake.

For Lemon Curd - and this is easier than it sounds.
Grate zest from about 6 lemons (less if you have a Meyer lemon tree in your yard - they're bigger) to about 2 tablespoons, and then sqeeze the juice to yield about a cup of juice.

In your KitchenAid mixer, or using a hand mixer, blend 1/2 cup softened butter with 2 cups of sugar til blended, then add 4 eggs one at a time, blending well. Add lemon juice, blend. Add the zest at the very end. The whole thing will look kinda curdled but this is okay. Put this into a microwave safe bowl and  zap on high for 5 minutes, stirring at regular intervals, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for several hours or until the lemon curd is firm. set aside.

For the cake - this is also easier than it sounds, and you can use this recipe for a ton of things. Do yourself a favor and buy a copy of "A Piece of Cake" by Susan Purdy; she makes it all clear. This uses her Swedish Butter Cake recipe, more or less.

Back to your blender: Blend 1 cup lightly salted butter (room temp) with 1-1/2 cups of sugar until well blended. Add, one by one, 2 large eggs. Combine dry ingredients 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour (always use King Arthur flour) with 1 teaspoon of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Also set aside 3/4 cup of milk, and add to it a teaspoon of vanilla extract (or in my case, Kahlua or limoncello if I have either on hand - you can also use almond flavoring).

To the butter/sugar mixture, add the dry and wet ingredients, beginning and ending with flour; mixing well between each addition.

Place 1/3 of the cake mixture in a greased, floured tube pan. Add lemon curd; top with more cake mix; layer as you like but end with cake mix. Bake in middle of oven at 325 - 350 for 55 - 65 minutes depending on your oven. Cool on rack for 5 or 10 minutes, then invert and remove. Dust with powdered sugar. Top with fresh berries (blueberries, you Jersey girls; spring strawberries for us Plant City-ish locals.)

Sound good? Get together with your sisters. Or take a slice to that sister you love, but don't see often enough. Or serve it to anyone you love and remind them how much you love them.

Content (C) 2013 Angela Christensen
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